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Managing anger and anxiety (Answering the big question)

By Tyvon Foster, LMSW, CAMS-II



Let’s face it, most of us view anger as a negative emotional response. Some of us see it as irrational or immature. Others become uncomfortable and believe themselves to be a bad person because they are witnessing their capabilities to hold such high levels of aggression. The truth is anger is a response that is as natural as gasping for air after a quick dive into the water.

Believe it or not, anger and anxiety are similarly related, cousins if you will. Both emotional responses trigger the part of the brain responsible for facilitating, or processing, the emotions as a result of being exposed to a particular stimuli, the amygdala. Both anger and anxiety at its essence are responses to maintaining homeostasis, survival, when one is perceiving a potential threat. It is like the brain’s way of giving warning that your sense of stability is being compromised, regardless if your sense of stability is functional or not. In this sense, anger and anxiety are not inherently bad. It’s how these responses manifest that can negatively impact quality of relationships, relating to others, and self image.

Another way to view anger and anxiety, is that there is a need that hasn’t been met. An example can be taken from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that being our primary needs such as food, water, shelter, etc. Some people may perhaps become fueled with aggression when, let’s say, hungry. So yes, hangry does exist. In this example, the need is nourishment, which is a necessary process for our continual survival. No source of nourishment equals your survival has been compromised, at least temporarily (this can also trigger anxiety as well).

When we think of anger and anxiety as need based emotional responses we can then understand how to respond best. Its helpful to identify if there are any physiological responses when experiencing anger and anxiety , as there often are. Examples would be muscle tension, fluttering heart beat, clinching of the fists, certain areas of the body emitting heat, swallow breathing, etc. Identifying these symptoms can help spot anxious and anger more easily. 

The big question in order to facilitate or needs in a healthy way is to ask ourselves “what do I need to be ok right now and healthy in the long term”. This question is fundamental in addressing our needs. It encourages us how to realistically and constructively attain our needs. In order to answer this question effectively, it requires us to move our psychological state from a place emotionally based (the amygdala) to a place that’s more centered in logic and reasoning (the prefrontal cortex). In this state, we are more likely to get our needs met, in a healthy way, because we would consider how to maintain equilibrium with caution, as opposed to operating from the amygdala.

Remember, if you are experiencing anger or anxiety, ask yourself the big question and how you can attain the need constructively.